Hacked to Death: A Brief History of Tech’s Most Two-Sided Term

mit model railroad Hacked to Death: A Brief History of Techs Most Two Sided Term

Hackers at MIT's Model Railroad Club

The word hacker has been everywhere recently, splashed across the front page for weeks as the “Phone Hacking” scandal at News of the World engulfed Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. There is a sensational mystique to the term that makes it irresistible to journalists. But typing the default password “1111” into the voicemail box of a murdered girl is not hacking. Neither is bribing the police for the phone numbers of celebrities and crime victims. Unless we’re ready to call smashing the window on my Honda Civic “car hacking,” nothing in the News. Corp scandal fits the bill.
“If it had been me, I would have broken into the phone company system, so I could have had direct access to the messages of all their customers,” said Kevin Mitnick, who was for several years the most wanted computer criminal in America, after hacking into the voicemail computers at Pacific Bell. “What News Corp. did, guess pin codes, spoofing voicemails, that is amateur script kiddie stuff.”

Mr. Mitnick, who now works as a security consultant and is publishing his first book in August, said he’s disappointed to see what passes for hacking these days. “I can remember writing a program in high school that was supposed to calculate 100 digits of the Fibonacci Sequence. It did that, but of course, it also stole passwords from my professor and classmates. But I didn’t get in trouble for that, I got an A, because my teacher recognized it was smart. That’s what hacking is supposed to be about, not crime, but innovation and creativity.”

In the 1950s, on the campus of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a great “hack” meant a  practical joke; covering the campus dome in tin foil, for example. Among the nerdy members of the Model Railroad Club, a hack came to mean a feat of technical skill, a particularly sweet switching station or miniature drawbridge. As these young geeks moved from laying track to working with computers, training massive IBM mainframes to make music and play chess, they took this attitude and vernacular with them.

hackers Hacked to Death: A Brief History of Techs Most Two Sided Term

Ruining it for the rest of us

The word hacker began to mutate, like a quartet of teen turtles, during the late 1980s and early 1990s. What had been a compliment among programmers and engineers became a byword for cyber-crime. Hollywood played a big role: films like WarGames and the eponymous Hackers made the word synonymous with mischief and mayhem.

The laws that sprung up to combat the rising tide of cyber-crime followed suit. “Hacking is breaking into computer systems, frequently with intentions to alter or modify existing settings,” according to the National Conference of State Legislators. “Sometimes malicious in nature, these break-ins may cause damage or disruption to computer systems or networks.”

A Google Trends chart of the period between 2004 and today shows the prevalence  of hacking in the press isn’t just anecdotal,  news coverage of hacking over the last three years has grown by leaps and bounds. Some of this coverage has been about real hacking. The attacks that penetrated Google’s systems in China and caused the search giant to pull it business out of the country. The infiltrators who stole sensitive data from hundreds of thousands of Sony customers. And the hack-tavism by Anonymous and Lulzsec that defaced websites of major governments and corporations.

hacker trends Hacked to Death: A Brief History of Techs Most Two Sided Term

via Google Trends

But just as often hackers have been convenient boogeymen. For example it turned out to be Rep. Anthony Weiner, not a hacker, who posted a photo of the congressman’s package to Twitter.  When Pfc. Bradley Manning was arrested for passing classified military documents to Wikileaks, publications like Wired and CNN speculated  Pfc. Manning had learned the dark arts from MIT students he partied with at a hack spaces in Boston. The banal truth was that an angry young man with access to information downloaded sensitive files and burned them to a CD. Writing Lady Gaga on the disc was a nice bit of misdirection, but hacking it was not.

The sad reality is that cyber-crime is on the rise. And in fact News Corp has engaged in computer hacking. As The New York Times recently pointed out, the company paid $29.5 million back in 2009 to settle charges that it hacked into the computer system of New Jersey based company called Floorgraphics and stole information for a smear campaign that cost the the small advertising company several major clients. There were no 9/11 victims involved, no celebrities or young murder victims, and so the story went largely untold. Hell, the head of U.S. cyber-security, Randy Vickers, resigned on Monday in the aftermath of hacking assaults on the Senate, FBI and CIA websites. Yet only the only major publications to carry the story so far have been foreign outlets, Reuters and The Guardian.

Hackers are like Jedi, wielding mysterious powers that enable them to peer into the private lives of normal folks. Just as there are Jedis on the light and dark side, so hackers are divided into white and black hat, a porous boundary which contributes to confusion around the term. Before he built computers, Steve Jobs and his partner Woz built blue bloxes that helped phone phreakers hack their way to free long distance calls. And the most widely known and admired young entrepreneur of this generation, Mark Zuckerberg, has dark hacking in his DNA. He didn’t ask for permission when he took the names and faces of his classmates and put them together into Facemash, an early experiment at Harvard that nearly got him expelled.

But when Zuckerberg sat down earlier this year with Leslie Stahl for a 60 minutes interview, he tried to explain to her that Facebook was strictly white hat. “The graffiti is largely gone,” Stahl said to Zuckerberg, during her tour Facebook’s fancy new offices, “except for one word, you just can’t miss. I see hack everywhere. Hack! It has a negative connotation, doesn’t it?”

“When we say hacker, there is this whole definition that engineers have for themselves, it’s very much a compliment,” said Zuckerberg. “To hack means to build something very quickly. In one night you can sit down and churn out a lot of code and at the end you have a product. Hackathons are these things where all of the Facebook engineer get together and stay up all night building things, and I do too, usually I code alongside everyone.”

Zuckerberg’s comment highlights an interesting divide. “The word now has two branches, the one used among computer progammers and the one used in the media,” said author Stevy Levy, whose 1984 book Hackers, first introduced the term to the mainstream.” On one hand it means “to create”; on the other “to steal.”

“There was a time when hacker had lost almost all of it positive connotation,” said Mr. Levy, who wrote in the update to the 2005 edition of his book that he considered dropping the word altogether. “But the community seems to have really reclaimed it for themselves, and that has spread, to the point where people talk about hacking healthcare or hacking education, and they mean working to make it better.”

Without a doubt, I’ve been guilty of misusing the word hacker in the past. But I won’t anymore. Hollywood screenwriters and harried journalists take note, lest you become hacks of an altogether different sort.
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  1. Glen Shennan says:

    “But typing the default password “1111” into the voicemail box of a murdered girl is not hacking.” — I understand this to be precisely the definition of hacking. A “hack” was originally (and still is) a journalist who turned out copy of low quality; a “hacker” was a person who would attempt to gain access to computer systems by guessing passwords, manually or otherwise.

    1. ebpp says:

      agreed, just because the thing getting hacked has no security, doesn’t mean it’s not a hack

      1. willbradley says:

        The original “hack” was actually someone who makes furniture with an axe, as in “hack together” or make something work without much sophistication. Using a phonebook to balance a crooked table is an oft-cited example of the prototypical hack. 

        Over time, clever hacks began to be appreciated by amateur engineers, as distinguished from ugly hacks. So, perhaps, balancing a crooked table with varying thicknesses of nylon on each leg, allowing it to now slide across the floor without marring the floor would be considered an elegant or clever hack as opposed to simply cutting off the legs until they weren’t crooked anymore.

        So while a case can be made that guessing passwords to someone’s voicemail box is a way of “hacking together” a way of getting in, it certainly isn’t elegant and in fact requires all the brainpower and morality of a juvenile gang member half-braindead from too much coke, and therefore is certainly the lowliest of hacks if it even qualifies as a hack.

        If Kevin Mitnick were to truly hack into people’s voicemails, he would probably do so in a way that was nearly impossible to detect, wouldn’t interfere with a police investigation (unless that was his motive), and would give him further access into interesting parts of the system, because a true hacker is a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system. This acquiring of knowledge is very distinct from the messy destruction most “hackers” who make headlines cause. 

        The second half of the hacker ethic is “commit no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality.” Most people who are part of the hacking community respect this.

      2. Howie says:

        Totally agree. A hacker is someone who delights in creative solutions to technical problems, not an idiot reporter who deletes messages from a dead girl’s cellphone.

    2. Arjen van Tol says:

      “…not crime, but innovation and creativity.”

      Guessing a voicemail pincode to gain access to only 1 voicemail is not very innovative, nor creative. In this case just stupid, a crime and as a public newspaper the beginning of the end.

  2. SEO Agencies says:

    i think it’s just a case of people taking a bad term and embracing it to make it lose it’s meaning

    1. willbradley says:

      Incorrect. You just think it’s a bad term because you’re a few decades late to the game. See the authoritative hacker dictionary dating back to the 50s: http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/H/hacker.html

  3. Anonymous says:

    It does not always have a positive meaning within programming (doing something quickly rather than thinking it through). ‘Hacking something together’ rather than designing it properly. Providing a ‘hack’ rather than a proper fix. Zuckerberg might be happy to get something demonstrated quickly, but over time some of those hacks might just come back to bite him in the ass.

    1. willbradley says:

      There is an argument for designing versus hacking, but if you’re a programmer you’ll agree that the best code is written out of inspiration, regardless of whether it was designed first or not. In other words, you can design an elegant system, but you can’t actually design elegant code; moreso you should meditate on the design and allow that flash of insight to come to you that solves all problems simultaneously with maximum efficiency. That’s the sign of an elegant hack and is why the word has its positive, revered meaning.

    2. plaerzen says:

      That is an incorrect use of the term “hack” as well.

  4. Miked says:

    People are so fucking dumb. Most people confuse the terms “cracker” and “hacker”. Lulzsec is a group of “crackers”. Read the Hacker manifesto and you will see they are the opposite of the connotation. People who finds flaws in things to see how they work and can improve them… 

  5. Anonymous says:

    sweet to give hacking a bit of the white force ;)

  6. Rmw26 says:

    money pools in the accounts of boomers who have little technical skill. a younger generation desires those resources. so they will abuse the term to create a phantom enemy so that they may play the white knight protecting your online business. but don’t we all sort of suspect that this is what has been all about the whole time? kids with skills creating demand for their own market. you plugged an ex criminal in this post and his coming book. Its all business. so away with your lofty venture into semantics as if this was art. 

  7. willbradley says:

    It’s unfortunate that despite your knowledge of how journalists ruin the word “hacker,” you still use that word to describe criminals in this article. Journalists would do everyone a favor if they said “criminal” or “thief” when they meant criminal or thief, and “hacker” when they meant someone who exhibited one of the definitions of hacker: http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/H/hacker.html

    Remember, hacker is supposed to be an honorific. If they are honorable but also a criminal, then you can say “malicious hacker” to distinguish properly.

    1. Ben Popper says:

      I disagree. As many of you have noted, cracker has been offered up as an alternative, but that word never got traction with the mainstream media. I could switch to using cracker all the time as some kind of linguistic statement, but I think that would be futile. 

      I also don’t think there is no such thing as a criminal hacker. A hacker in my opinion – and I don’t claim to have the ultimate definition, just a few weeks of research – is someone who applies technical and creative skill to a project. 

      At MIT this first meant a good practical joke, then a good model railroad builder, then a good programmer. The common valence these days is for CS folks, but plenty of the members of NYC resistor think of themselves as hackers, despite working in other fields. 

      So I would say hacker is a word I will use, but be careful to qualify. And I will fight against those who use it carelessly, to refer to criminals who fail the Model Railroad Club test – no technical or creative skill. 

      There were a lot of other things that I wanted in the piece that ended up on the cutting room floor, but hopefully this discussion can continue on Twitter, Google+ and in the comments. 

      Also – here is the awesome art from the paper version! 

  8. Larry Barton says:

    Several years ago, in a similar article, the author suggested the term “cracker” for criminal hackers. A “hacker” is really anyone who hacks things together–i.e., whips it up from whatever comes to hand–and is not restricted to the realm of digital technology. Like the fellow who uses baling wire to repair his outboard motor–that sort of thing. Computer hackers were people who had enough programming knowledge to create or alter subroutines on the fly. They were the original IT people. It’s sad that the press couldn’t come up with their own term for criminal computer activity, but etymological dictionaries are replete with examples of this sort of usurpation.

  9. Alex B says:

    Thank goodness for this article, the incorrect use of the word hacking is my biggest pet peeve, and i normally don’t have pet peeves. I totally agree with all that you have said and I am pretty sure i agree with your point of view.